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A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’

11 min read. “I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son.”

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A Mother’s Love: ‘I’m So Happy My Son Came Out As Gay’
Photo: Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash
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Stigma has never been far from Rosemary Kasiva. In her case, you could call it quadruple stigma. She was brought up by a single mother in the sixties, brought up her own children as a single parent, watched her sister die of an AIDS-related illness, and today is the mother to an openly gay son, Leonard aka Mutisya.

Our meeting takes place in her son’s flat in a Nairobi suburb.  The rainbow flag hangs limply in a corner. This was not the first time we had met.  She had insisted that we meet at least once so that she could get to know me, and what I was after. She had good reason to mistrust the media in our society. Back to Rosemary. I was struck by how youthful she looks. Her spectacles sat squarely on her cappuccino coloured face. She wore a strong and somewhat serious face. She asked to make myself at home, and prepare whatever beverage I fancy. She’s been wanting to share her journey of being a parent of being an openly gay son. Especially following the recent ruling on the petition to decriminalize homosexual sex. She figured it was time to talk about her son, her first-born, the one she had when she was only 19.

Kasiva could possibly have been the only parent present at the High Court during the Repeal 162 case. I remember seeing her during the submissions and she was also among the throes of individuals who were present during the May 24th ruling.  She wasn’t there for Leonard alone, she wasn’t there for the queer community alone either; she too had a stake in the judgement.

“I’m glad Leonard and I can talk openly about gay relationships, marriages and having children within the gay setting,” says Kasiva. “We share posts on everything and I sometimes question why I was so mad when he came out. This has been the best thing that has happened to both of us.  There are no secrets we now relate honestly and openly.”

I know many other queer individuals who would love to hear their own parents utter those words. I know I would. There is acceptance, respect, and love in this home. Kasiva does not hide the deep love she has for Leonard and his siblings. But she is very protective of her children. Trust does not come easy to her. She has been hurt once to many times.

First, her sister. She tells me she wishes that when she had the same resolve to fight for her sister who died of an HIV-related illness the same way she now defends Leonard and his brothers.

“We faced stigma at the hospitals that I took my sister to. We were afraid then. When she died, who stood with us? No one,” she says. “I [wish I] would have made sure she would have gotten the best treatment and maybe she would have still been here. There was a lot of stigma and fear surrounding us. Now I am not willing to sacrifice any member of my family at the expense of the world.”

See where she is coming from?

We have the flat to ourselves, as both mother and son didn’t want to impede each other during the interview. Kasiva has her cup of chai, I’ve got my kahawa and for then, she gives me the precious gift of time. Time to re-open memories and remember her journey and subsequently, transformation.

Kasiva describes herself as a Nairobi hustler through and through.  This city is her home. She was born in Pumwani Hospital, raised at the BAT Village in Bahati, in the Eastlands area and spent most of her adult life in Dagoretti, until recently when she migrated to Athi River. But she still commutes daily into the city for business and for church on Sunday.  She had also made the trek into the city for this interview.

Kasiva beams with pride as she remembers how Leonard was a very smart child.  He excelled academically both in primary and secondary school and earned himself a scholarship to study in Singapore and then the United States.  She describes him as a gentle and obedient child. The ideal first born, though he suffered from a number of health challenges during his early childhood. She remembers he preferred playing with dolls more than cars or more ‘boys toys’. It was shocking at first but she opted to continue buying the toys that he preferred.  She didn’t think much of it.  It seemed like just a preference to her back then, something that didn’t warrant much fuss.

As she recalls Leonard’s formative years, there were little incidents here and there that hinted he was different, but she was dismissive of them. Like the time he had a close friend in primary school and during their Standard 8 exams, she came across success cards from this particular boy to Leonard. They had love hearts and affectionate messages. Leonard told her they were just friends.

However, it was not until many years later when Leonard was studying abroad did the matters of his orientation resurface. He had come back home for holiday from Singapore with a male friend and they went to the Maasai Mara together. While they were away, Leonard’s church friends came home to inquire on his whereabouts. When she told them that his away with a male friend, their reaction surprised her. She suspects that they knew Leonard was gay but she herself thought nothing of their interest in her son and his travel companion.  To her, Leonard had just brought a friend who wanted to experience his friend’s home country.

It was not until 2010 when Leonard came home unexpectedly from the US, where he was studying at the time, that things did begin to unravel proper. His university had been in touch with her a few times before asking her to intervene as Leonard seemed to be struggling academically. Leonard was halfway through his studies at this time, but he didn’t seem committal about his return to America.  There was always an excuse for the delay, until after he came out clean. She remembers him saying he was considering celibacy and informing his mother that he didn’t like girls, not in ‘that’ way.

“I hope you don’t like boys?” she remembers asking.   His response to her was, “Unfortunately I do.”  As she recalls this conversation, she falls back into the sofa. She remembers that the revelation was painful.  She tells me that she fired her son with a barrage of questions and even threatened to beat him. She verbally abused him, berated him and expressed her disappointment.  Some of the answers to her inquisition were greeted with silence, and some revealed the bitter truth.  One such truth was that some of the individuals with whom Leonard had gay encounters were also within the church. Her church. Their church. The church where Leonard and his brothers served in ministry. The family church. The sense of betrayal from within and outside her home was immense. Did everyone but her know of her son’s sexuality, she asked herself.  Had people within the church managed to ‘recruit’ her son, she wondered.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and as Rosemary reflects on that moment, she tells me she regrets her reaction and wishes she’d have acted better.  She describes the family as close-knit and expresses disappointment that she had not created an environment for Leonard to come clean about his sexuality earlier.

It was also around this time, she says, that Leonard got involved in activism. This added fuel to her fire. She hated the gay community for having ‘recruited’ her son and also from detracting him from his studies in the US. She recalls how Leonard’s coming out may have affected his brothers, as she hints their grades slipped around this time due to the tension that had come out in the home. Pun intended.
An ultimatum was issued. She categorically told Leonard that he could only live in her house if she renounced his homosexuality.  Then one day, he stepped out and never came back home. It was a harrowing six months that followed. There was no contact, nor knowledge of his whereabouts. Phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Some of these texts demanded that he came back home or else she was going to set the police on him. Leonard remained mteja all through this period.

“I lost so much weight during this time. Eventually, through my own networks and the rumour mill, I found out that Leonard was in Kisumu. I was on a matatu almost immediately once I got this news.” I’m astounded at the clarity at which she remembers things. She remembers it was a Prestige Shuttle that she travelled on. The two samosas and tea that she had for breakfast and the five hours she spent walking around Kisumu.  She believed that Leonard was living as a street person and she was somehow convinced was going to meet someone, anyone, who would know him. Maybe he now went by the name of Mutisya. I must mention she had never been to Kisumu before and had presumed that is was the size of Machakos (it is much bigger). Her words, not mine.

She admits there was a mixture of naivety, bravery, and desperation during this expedition. The fact that Leonard was AWOL was a secret that was known only to her and her other two sons. Not even her mother – Leonard’s grandmother – knew. She wanted him back and still hoped he would resume his studies.

Kasiva was relentless in trying to contact Leonard. She kept on sending him messages. She endured numerous sleepless nights. She’d rack her brain, wondering what her son was doing in Kisumu, whether he was homeless, and what he is eating. There is nothing like a mother’s love.

“Mutisya’s grandmother used to ask about him and when he was going back to the US. The bishop of my church would ask the same. I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t know where he was. I had to lie to them. I kept on telling them he is taking a break so that he could work on a project.”

“There was a rumour already doing the rounds in the church that Leonard had been chased away from America because he was gay.  I also started being blamed for making him gay. People were saying that it was my male friends who had abused Leonard, which is why he had turned out gay. There was so much hate!”

The wagging tongues and lack of support from her church led Kasiva to walk away from a place that she believed was a sanctuary. It didn’t end there. On the home front, Leonard’s siblings started questioning their mother on their elder brother’s whereabouts. “They started telling me, if I had not been angry with Leonard, he would not have run away.” Her voice now sounding pained.

The period of Leonard’s absence accorded her time to reflect and ask herself some hard questions.  Questions that made her think about his sexuality, her love for him, and whether she was going to live a life worrying about other people’s opinions. Despite not being in communication with her first born, she religiously kept on sending him money.  She was trying to reach out.

Kasiva looks at me squarely, tilts her head and with a seriousness in her eyes and tells me she prayed constantly for her son. Prayed for him to come back.  She got her miracle when Leonard called her one day and informed her he was working in Kisumu. A reunion and homecoming were delicately agreed on. By this time, she had to come to terms with two things – Leonard’s sexuality and his decision to drop out of university. Both were bitter pills to swallow for her because she had dreams for him once he graduated.  Kasiva also realised that Leonard’s coming out would also put her in the line of a lot of criticism and being ostracised.  However, she knew full well that she was not going to go through another six months or more of mental and emotional torture.

“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son,” she recollects. She wanted her son(s) to be able to approach her with anything. In true Kasiva form, she laid down the questions again. She even asked Leonard whether he was dating. At the time he wasn’t, but she remembers him telling her that he’d let her know if there was anyone on the cards.

As I sat there listening to Kasiva, I remembered another friend who came out to both her parents and both were in full support of their daughter’s queer identity. There are many queer Kenyans who crave that kind of support from their parents or even friends.  Unfortunately, the Kasiva’s of this world are still few and far between. I marvelled at Kasiva’s 180-degree turn. Their relationship is warm, Leonard is now her right-hand-man, her go-to-guy and more importantly her friend.

In accepting Leonard, Kasiva wonders what she was really scared of. Was it because he chose to drop out of school or was it about his sexuality? Was it because of what people would have thought or had her worst fear been realised? Did she blame herself for the many ‘red flags’ that she ignored?

Kasiva and Leonard’s journey is a blend of the biblical prodigal son without the demand an inheritance (and with a mother instead of a father obviously), but a request for acceptance. It was like the runaway Jacob getting back to his father Isaac or Joseph reuniting with his father Jacob. In ‘finding’ her son, Kasiva opened herself to a whole new world of activism and a whole new community of friends.

However, this has not been an easy process for her. This has exposed her to the politics of the queer community, which at times left Leonard holding the short end of the stick because of his work in the activists’ space. In those initials days, she admits that her feelings towards the gay community swung like a pendulum.

I learnt at a conference a few years ago that when an African comes out as gay/queer, they come out with their whole family. With Leonard’s sexuality being an open book now, and with him being back home, the rejection squarely kicked in. Kasiva was ostracized by relatives, friends, neighbours, church members, fellow business people, the whole lot! She had not realised what she had signed up for by openly standing in support of her son. She also feared for her family’s security at the home in the Dagoretti area.

“Nobody wanted to identify with me. I would go to the market to buy vegetables or to the butchery to buy meat and the moment I would turn my back, people would start laughing.”  The pain stigma returned anew, this time, worse than those years ago with her sister.

In the years gone by, her relationship with Leonard has grown from strength to strength. “I am so happy that he came out as gay and decided to live as a gay man in Kenya. I’d be more worried if he came out as gay and he was away from me. I can see him happy, I can check on him and I have been able to see him transform.

“I’d like to encourage parents to embrace their children.  Talk to them about what they feel about their orientation; let’s be open to our children. Let us not put barriers to communication.”

Kasiva has severed relationships with individuals who seem spiteful towards her and her children. The accusations have been levelled at the whole family, insinuating that they are in the business of recruiting young people into homosexuality.

“I wish we could have honest discussions within our churches. My bishop has been supportive of me, even calling me during the absence to find out why I had kept away from the church,” she says. “The problem, I think, is with the congregants more, the ones who are trying to prove they are ‘holy’.”

The church still plays a pivotal role in Kasiva’s life. Her faith has become more personal. “We need to practise what we preach, we need to practise love, preach love and loving everyone and not judging anybody. We do not know until such a time when God comes who is living right and who is living wrong.”

Kasiva doesn’t trust easily. She has now kept a handful of friends and I understand why. She has been betrayed too many times. When things were really rough, the only people who stood by her were Leonard’s siblings.  She would break down before them often. Those were days she didn’t have the energy to face her fellow hustlers. It was too much.  I sense that she is still grappling to understand how individuals whom she called friends or relatives could burn her at the stake because she had a gay son.

“Let’s be honest. We are not all the same and let us not hate people who are different from us,” she says. “All families are not perfect, even those with a father and mother. There are families that can have also gay parents. Let us be willing to judge and accommodate the other person. Let’s try and understand that we are not all equal.”

Kasiva knows that she is not the only gay parent in the village. She and another fellow mother occasionally check on one another. However, she knows that there is more than she can offer. She would love to start a support group to help parents understand and come to terms with their children’s sexuality or identity.

She urges parents to be more open-minded and to recognise that there are many forms of love that exist out there.  Unconditional support and love are the bedrock of the family, according to Kasiva.  Love, love, love is what she is calling for now.

As we concluded the interview, she tells me that she is surprised that she didn’t cry. She expected to be very emotional. It had been an intense one and a half hour interview. I left feeling envy for Leonard and his siblings, respect and admiration for Kasiva. I didn’t know how to respond to her statement on the crying then. It was only later that I found the words, where I wanted to tell her she had done her tears, and now it was time to enjoy the rainbows.

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Kevin Mwachiro is a writer, poet, freelance journalist, broadcaster and activist. Kevin was diagnosed with a blood cancer called multiple myeloma in October 2015 and is currently on maintenance treatment (low dose chemotherapy) to manage his condition. Kevin has documented his journey on https://medium.com/@kevinmwachiro

Reflections

Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports

7 min read. Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

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Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports
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Once every few decades comes a sports hero, a legend, who transforms and ignites their discipline far beyond its traditional boundaries to inspire millions of people who would otherwise have little interest in that sport.

In football, we had the remarkable Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pele, and the mercurial Diego Maradona. In boxing, we had the poetic Muhammad Ali and the rage of “Iron” Mike Tyson. In basketball, we had the versatile Michael Jordan. In athletics, we had the exciting sprinter Usain Bolt. In golf, the resilient Tiger Woods. In tennis, the dominant sisters Venus and Serena Williams. In the marathon, we now have the philosophical Eliud Kipchoge.

12th October 2019. The time is 8am, the temperature is 9 degrees centigrade at the Reichsbrücke (German for Imperial Bridge) in Vienna, Austria. Eliud and seven members of his elite team of pacemakers jog up and down a 50-meter stretch behind the starting point of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge Race on the gentle slope of the bridge. To their left, the 119-year old St. Francis of Assisi Church can barely be seen through the mist lifting slowly from Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube.

Hundreds of excited fans make their way through the grey chilly morning to the bridge. Thousands more line up the race route on both sides of the iconic Hauptallee in the Prater park, known to local runners as “the green lung of Vienna” due to the fresh air from the trees along the 4.3 km straight avenue. The anticipation among the fans is palpable as they seek vantage positions before the start of the race.

Many are convinced that they are on the verge of witnessing a once in a lifetime sporting spectacle. Among them are scores of Kenyans who have travelled from neighboring countries and others all the way from Kenya, eager to cheer their national legend.

Eliud Kipchoge, the world marathon record holder is once more set to make athletic history. At precisely 15 minutes past 8am, the announcer counts down the clock by 15 seconds. The crowds cheer, and the race is on.

One hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds later, Eliud spectacularly sprints through the finish line at the Prater park becoming the first man in history to run a marathon in under two hours. The watching world collectively bursts out in celebration peppered with a sense of relief. Athletics’ last great barrier has been shattered, paving the way into a new frontier no one can quite define.

For several months, the event organizers have rallied behind Eliud’s personal philosophy that “no human is limited” to galvanize the world around a profound idea, an experiment in stretching the capabilities of the human body. The one thing that was never in doubt among supporters and cynics was that if there was anyone capable of running a marathon in under two hours, it had to be Eliud Kipchoge.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man and founder of INEOS, expressed his confidence and trust in Eliud’s ability to run a sub-two marathon right from the announcement of the 1:59 Challenge Race in May 2019.

“Eliud is the best marathoner there’s ever been, and he’s still getting better. He’s the only man currently who can break the 2-hour barrier,” Sir Ratcliffe said.

During the same occasion, Eliud had no hesitation in saying that he was equal to the task. “My mind is saying that I’m going to do it. So my heart and mind is on 1:59. The secret is believing and trusting in my capabilities that I can do it,” he explained.

In writing himself into the history books, Eliud ran an average speed of two minutes and fifty seconds every kilometer across the entire 42-kilometer course. That this feat that would commence at the Reichsbrücke was even more fascinating for someone described by sports commentators as the greatest marathoner of all time.

On 1st October 1976 shortly before five in the morning, the imposing bridge, one of the most trafficked in Vienna, unexpectedly collapsed into the river Danube killing one person. The main reason given for the collapse was structural failure in the bearings, which was not spotted during inspection due to the massive granite mantle that surrounded them. A new bridge was re-designed and formally opened on 8th November, 1980. It remains an impressive structure used by 50,000 vehicles each day with six lanes of traffic, U-Bahn tracks, two footpaths, two-cycle paths and two utility tunnels.

Eliud’s stellar athletic career faced a near collapse in 2012, when he incredibly failed to qualify for the London Olympics as an accomplished 5,000-meter runner. In a radical decision that would prove to be a game-changer, he switched to road running that same year starting out in the half marathon before winning the 2013 Hamburg Marathon in a course record time. From that win, Eliud’s marathon career took off into the stratospheres.

He has won 10 of the 11 marathons that he has participated in. In 2016 he took the Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in a race where he was seemingly under no threat from the competition. He currently holds the official world record of 2:01:39, set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In contemplating Eliud’s extraordinary triumphs over the last six years, it’s clear that the world of sports has once more produced an iconic figure, transcending cultures, race and languages to redefine the boundaries of human achievements and inspire billions across the globe. Only a few personalities come to mind when one reflects on the scale of what this means. We may even have to look outside the arena of sports to find such inspiring individuals.

The world of music carries a comparable transcendent power to sports, and it therefore provides a notable personality we can briefly examine to comprehend Eliud’s influence on millions across the globe. The late pop-musician Michael Jackson immediately stands out.

His musical talent and genius were undeniable, enriching the global music industry for decades during his lifetime. Through his music, Michael Jackson managed to transcend racial barriers to inspire millions of adoring fans across different cultures and different generations. Shortly after his death in June 2009, American evangelist Al Sharpton described him as a truly historic figure.

It may be too early to make lofty comparisons between Eliud Kipchoge and the late King of pop, but the greatest marathoner in modern times does provide some profound and inspiring insights from his athletic achievements. To truly understand the driving force behind this fascinating man, we need to go back and examine a few of his past philosophical thoughts and musings.

We need to appreciate the motivations that compelled him to take on the challenge of running a marathon in under two hours, succeeding on the second attempt two years after the Nike Breaking2 project where he fell short by just 25 seconds. Immediately following that pioneering event of May 2017, the philosopher king of the marathon simply quipped: “The world is just 26 seconds away.”

At a press briefing hosted by his local sponsors Isuzu East Africa on 4th September, 2019 in Nairobi, Eliud powerfully explained why he was going to Vienna to make athletic history.

“I am going to Vienna to inspire a whole generation. I am going to Vienna to sell the idea that no human is limited. I am going to Vienna to inspire the human family. I want to inspire that journalist, lawyer, engineer, teacher, driver that when they wake up they can do more. It’s not about setting a world record but it’s about making history and inspiring the human race.”

The world of business can certainly learn a great deal from this excellent athlete’s training methodology, personal discipline and winning mindset. Take for instance his radical decision to switch from his favorite track event the 5,000M to the marathon. Jim Collins in his best-selling book Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make The Leap, provides two compelling approaches practiced by these successful companies that one can discern in Eliud’s career.

First, Jim Collins asserts that companies that made the shift from being good to later become great institutions, started by developing within their organizations the ability to confront the ‘brutal facts’. They created a climate or environment where employees were consistently encouraged to speak up and share truth in their day to day operations, no matter how unpalatable it was to their leaders.

Secondly, in that bold process, these companies came to the realization that if their core business did not propel them to be the best in their sectors, then they needed to change to what they could be best at, not what they were competent to do. Finally, the companies needed to build an absolute belief in their ranks that they could become the very best in their business. They nurtured an unfailing faith, an iron-willed self-belief that they could achieve their goals no matter how ambitious, insurmountable or wild they at first appeared to be.

In failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, Eliud had to confront the brutal reality that he was not the best in the 5,000M track discipline. While he was competent in the event, having won Olympic medals and a world championship in his career, he was yet to realize his full athletic potential. He had to make a choice between continuing in an event where he would likely not rise to dominance, or courageously try out something new where he had a chance of truly excelling. The switch to the marathon resulted in a stunning change of fortunes for Eliud which culminated in the enthralling sub two-hour performance in Vienna.

In the lead up to this memorable event, Eliud once more clarified his intentions for taking on an epic race challenge that he well knew would not be recognized as an official marathon record.

“I want to be able to show the world that when you focus on your goal, when you work hard, and when you believe in yourself, anything is possible,” he said.

The element of self-belief came out consistently in Eliud’s statements when confronted with the epic 1:59 Challenge Race. From the moment he announced to the world his intention to mirror what British athlete Roger Banister had achieved in 1954 running the mile in under four minutes, Eliud’s simple conviction regarding what a human being could achieve with the right mindset was amazing.

“Any human being can go beyond their thoughts, but self-belief is crucial. I totally believe in myself, and in my team-mates and my training,” he said.

Indeed, no other human endeavor demonstrates the power and benefits of teamwork as well as sports does. One of Eliud’s most cherished training principles is anchored around his team-mates and what they have enabled him to achieve.

“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. 100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the team,” he often asserts.

Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

In Kenya, Eldoret was the epicenter of excitement with ripples of celebration going right across the country. For one tantalizing day, we forgot our petty differences as we applauded our gallant son for making history and swelling our hearts with national pride.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Eliud’s achievement that Saturday morning inspired the thrilling performances of Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei the following day at the Chicago Marathon. They were the male and female winners of the race with Brigid winning in a world record time of 2:14:04, shattering Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year old record of 2:15:25.

Without a doubt, there is no better case for increasing our national sports budgets, county budgets and corporate sponsorships to deliberately invest in our rich sporting talents across the country. Building on the lessons from our successful track athletes, we have in recent times also seen the immense potential in our football, rugby sevens and women’s volleyball teams. We stand to gain immeasurably as a nation from this untapped goldmine that can radically transform the fortunes of our young people. As Eliud has shown us, there are no limits to what we can achieve as Kenyans if we set our minds to this noble undertaking.

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Reflections

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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